Rediscovering the Yamuna

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

At the end of the Navaratri festival, plastic bags and other garbage are thrown into the Yamuna Hindon canal along with religious offerings. The Yamuna has been reduced to a large drain.-V. SUDERSHAN

At the end of the Navaratri festival, plastic bags and other garbage are thrown into the Yamuna Hindon canal along with religious offerings. The Yamuna has been reduced to a large drain.-V. SUDERSHAN

What the Yamuna carries from the Yamunotri glacier to the Ganga is not holy water, but rather the sewage and wastewater that are guiltlessly dumped into it.

THE river Yamuna, sacred to millions of Hindus, flows past the city of Delhi - actually through it since the city has now spread to the eastern bank of the river, an area that is growing rapidly. In centuries gone by, rulers built their palaces on the western bank of the river. Shah Jehan built his elegant Red Fort close to it. Further downstream, Firozshah Tughlak, a great builder, built Firozabad. A little further down, Humayun, and later Sher Shah Suri, built the imposing Purana Qila. To the north of these palaces and forts, there were, and still are, temples and ashrams of various kinds and the Nigambodh Ghat where generations of Hindus have cremated their dead.

The Yamuna, like many other rivers, was seen as a source of life. The residents of the cities that grew around the palaces, temples and forts drew water from it for their own use and for their cattle, their trees and crops. It was considered sacred because it flowed down from the Himalayas bringing life to the land around it until it merged with the Ganga and the now-hidden Saraswati at the Sangam near Allahabad. It is the river that washes Vrindavan and Mathura where Krishna is believed to have grown up. It is a river that moves between history and legend, between the spiritual and the mundane.

Today it has moved completely into the realm of legend and myth. Those who have to cross it every day to go to work or for other reasons have to encounter the stench that comes from the black, fetid mass of thick water that flows sluggishly through Delhi. It is now nothing more than a large drain that carries the filth and sewage of the city to Mathura and Agra and finally to the Ganga. As Delhi grew no one, amazingly, thought of a means of disposing sewage other than by emptying it into the river. That is one of India's enduring mysteries and philosophical marvels: revering a river as sacred and then emptying excreta into it.

But there may be a more rational explanation. Perhaps it is because those responsible for the disposal of sewage in Delhi know that they are not emptying it into the Yamuna at all because the Yamuna - the real Yamuna - is not what flows through Delhi. Consider these details given by a publication of the Ministry of Environment and Forests:

The Yamuna flows through a series of valleys for about 200 km in the lower Himalayas and enters the Indo-Gangetic plain. In the upper stretch, it draws water from several major streams. Then, it flows through the Shivalik range of hills in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand) and enters the plains at Dak Pathar, where it is diverted into a canal for power generation. From Dak Pathar it flows through Poanta Sahib, a famous Sikh religious place. On the right side of the Yamuna basin is the Mussourie spur. It reaches Hathnikund/Tajewala in Yamuna Nagar district of Haryana. The water is diverted into western and eastern canals for irrigation. During summer, the river remains dry in some stretches between Tajewala and Delhi. It regains water from the ground and from the Som nadi (a seasonal stream) upstream of Kalanaur. It enters Delhi near Palla village after traversing a distance of about 224 km. The river is again tapped at Wazirabad to provide drinking water to Delhi. Generally, no water is allowed to flow beyond the Wazirabad barrage in the dry season, as the water available is not adequate to meet the demands of Delhi. The water that flows in the downstream of the Wazirabad barrage is the untreated or partially treated domestic and industrial wastewater contributed through several drains, along with the water transported by the Irrigation Department of Haryana from the Western Yamuna Canal.

The publication makes it clear that in the summer months, no Yamuna water reaches Delhi. What flows through Delhi is a vast mass of sewage and "industrial wastewater", as the document says.

Therefore, during the summer months, this is not a sacred river, and hence sewage can be dumped into it with a clear conscience. During the later part of the rainy season and perhaps the winter, some of the original Yamuna water may flow through Delhi, but the rains add a good amount of water from other sources as well.

The pity is that while ordinary citizens in Delhi and elsewhere are appalled by this, those with authority are more concerned about the formulation of reasons for their inaction.

Meanwhile, the large drain called the Yamuna continues its noisome way through the city with its load of filth, carcasses, plastic bags and sheets. It is highly unlikely that any thought has been given by anyone with authority to the possibility of bringing to the Yamuna some of its original water, if only to flush out, as far as possible, some of the filth and sewage that the drain now carries. Brave plans appear to have been drawn up to ensure that no untreated sewage enters the river by 2010, the year the Commonwealth Games will be held in Delhi.

A cheery release that was recently given to the media stated that the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has started working on a plan to implement the `interceptor sewage' report written by an expert committee, to clean the river Yamuna, now that the Supreme Court has given it the go-ahead. "By July 2007, we will submit our action plan in the apex court regarding the details of measures to cleanse the river," said Arun Mathur, Chief Executive Officer, DJB.

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote some brilliant poems that were based on fantasy like Kubla Khan, wrote an essay where he talks of his poems having "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith". One may be forgiven for not attributing to the statement made by the DJB, the degree of poetic faith that brings with it that willing suspension of disbelief - there have been too many promises in the past, too much money spent but nothing has happened.

Reiterating what was said earlier, it is time that serious thought was given by those at the highest levels of authority to bringing to the Yamuna some of its original water. Irrigating agricultural land is certainly necessary, but it is definitely possible to achieve this without diverting all the water from the Yamuna. Groundwater and water from local rivulets and streams can also be used for irrigation, so that some of the water from the Yamunotri glacier finds its way to the river's confluence with the Ganga.

Better water management of the Yamuna, the Ganga, the Narmada, the Cauvery and all other rivers is not just a matter for technocrats and their files and figures, it has to do with the existence of the country as we know it.

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